The men who runs the Masters like to remind people that their hallowed tournament is an invitational. To play, you must be invited. Even though there are very clear rules of qualification, the committee—meaning the leadership of Augusta National Golf Club—always has the right to not invite someone—anyone—if it decides for one reason or another it doesn’t want a player teeing it up on the second Thursday in April.
More important, the committee has the right to invite players who have not qualified. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it almost always involves international players.
In 1992, two future Hall-of-Famers, Greg Norman and Tom Kite, were going through slumps and hadn’t met any of the criteria for that year’s tournament. Norman got a special invitation; Kite did not. Two months later, Kite won the U.S. Open. He played in the Masters the next year.
This year, Shugo Imahira, the 26-year-old leading money winner last year on the Japanese Tour, received a special invitation. A year ago, Shubhankar Sharma, a 21-year-old from India, received a special invite. When Ryo Ishikawa was still considered the “next big thing” from Japan, he was given three special invitations.
So the question for today is this: Why not Ernie Els? If any non-Masters champion deserves a little bit of special treatment from the folks at Augusta National, it is Els.
He is a four-time major champion. He finished second in the Masters twice and had a five-year run (2000-2004) in which his worst finish at Augusta was T-6. He will turn 50 in October and will no doubt be playing in senior majors a year from now.
When he last played in the Masters in 2017, Els finished 53rd, so it isn’t as if he’s likely to shoot a pair of sky-high scores and embarrass himself. In fact, that finish came a year after Els went through a soul-draining seven-putt on the first hole of the tournament and kept grinding. He played the final 35 holes in three over par (the cut was six over) and never gave up, shooting 80-73 to miss the cut by three strokes.
After his seven-putt experience, Els answered every question thrown at him, didn’t make excuses and handled the situation the way he’s handled almost every experience during his career: with class and dignity.
So, let’s review: four-time major champion; already a Hall-of-Famer; class act; turning 50; wildly popular with fans (whoops, “patrons”) international player. So why the heck isn’t Ernie Else teeing it up this week?
Why not give him one more chance to try to make the cut, to have that last walk up the 18th hole before bowing out? If by some chance he gets hot and finishes in the top 12 and earns an invitation back next year, all the better. But at least give him his moment. That last walk shouldn’t be reserved just for past Masters champions, it should be reserved for the greats and Els is absolutely a great.
More so, I would add, than a number of past Masters champions. But Els would be the first one to tell you, they earned their lifetime exemptions. If Phil Mickelson hadn’t birdied four of the last eight holes in 2004, this wouldn’t be an issue.
But it is.
The Masters only comments on special invitations when explaining why it has decided to give one to a player. One of the cool things about the tournament is the presence of six amateurs every year and of the past champions. It also has—by far—the smallest field among the four majors. It has the flexibility to add a player or two to the field at any minute. Corey Connors became a plus-one on Sunday when he won in San Antonio.
Connors victory made him the 87th player in the field. The Masters often changes its qualifying standards. Years ago, the entire Walker Cup teams were invited to play. Recently, the Asia-Pacific and Latin American Amateur champions were added to the field. There was a period when PGA Tour winners weren’t automatically invited. Now, they are invited again—except for those who win “opposite events,” meaning that four players who have won opposite events since last year’s Masters are out of luck this week: Troy Merritt; Cameron Champ; Martin Trainer and past U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell.
It goes without saying that all four players would love to be at Augusta right now. It also goes without saying that the Masters would be a better tournament if the four of them were playing.
It would also be a better event with Els in the field. The problem is this: Augusta National believes—correctly—that it doesn’t really need anyone. When Tiger Woods couldn’t play in 2017, the club still held the tournament and it still had a thrilling finish. The same has been true since—among others—Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus retired.
No one is indispensable, especially at Augusta where everyone in a green jacket absolutely believes the “tradition unlike any other” slogan that Jim Nantz coined 33 years ago (and Augusta National copyrighted a few years back).
But that’s not the point. Els’ presence would make the week a little better for everyone involved. More important, it would mean a great deal to Els, even if he is seemingly at peace with the notion that 2017 was his 23rd and final Masters.
Personally, I’d love to see Els play the Masters twice more, so he can get to 25 appearances. I don’t expect that to happen. But it would be nice if the leadership at Augusta National would look at all he has meant to the sport they repeatedly tell us they love so much and reconsider their position.
With all due respect to Shugo Imahira, Shubhankar Sharma, Ryo Ishikawa and others who have received special invitations, no one has ever deserved the special recognition of a special invitation more than Ernie Els.